Monday, August 22, 2016

Substitutionary Atonement

A comment in a preachers' support group meeting recently; what is your view of the atonement? Since many great and mighty tomes have been written on the matter, only some of which I didn't understand, I asked for a more precise question to answer.

I have been fond, in recent years, of preaching on Jesus by telling people how others made sense of his life, death and resurrection and inviting them to make their own conclusions. I have avoided putting my own stamp on any one answer.

Here is the question as it has now been posed to me:

Do you believe that Jesus died on the cross to pay the price for your personal sin, thereby allowing the only means of your personal salvation?

Let's break it down:

Do you believe that Jesus died on the cross...

Yes. Seems as clear as any historical 'fact' can be that that is what happened to him. pay the price for your personal sin,...

It is hard to tell from the Gospels if that is what Jesus thought he was doing. The New Testament passages giving theological meaning to that which he was about to do were all placed on his lips by the evangelists after he had done it. But Isaiah 53 sits there awkward and needing to be true. He was pierced for our transgressions? Who did the prophet mean?

It is clear that, post-resurrection, theologians tumbled to the truth that sacrifice was needed no more, death had no more threat and the devil (meaning something then that we probably don't mean now) was defeated.

The rest of the New Testament is written trying to make sense of the fact that, despite these truths, the church had problems and Christians were made to suffer.

One way of looking at it is to think of sin needing to be paid for and Christ pays the price. Another, perhaps one I prefer, is that in Christ's death and resurrection we have a demonstration of the futility of self-reliance. In Jesus I prefer the metaphor that something was restored rather than something purchased. I also like the example of the man of perfect obedience pointing us in a similar direction, albeit in intention only for we will stumble.

I do sing at Easter:

There was no other good enough
To pay the price of sin
He only could unlock the gates
Of heaven and let us in
(There is a Green Hill)

But those verses are pretty metaphor-rich in oh so many ways.

thereby allowing the only means of your personal salvation?

What happens to me is down to God. Trying to be his servant and a Jesus-follower leaves me tentative. 'The only means'? Who could ever know?

Many of my very conservative evangelical friends will go beyond seeing substitutionary atonement as a metaphor. They will say it is what actually happened. It is this attitude that led to Steve Chalke criticising that theology as cosmic child-abuse (which got him into trouble) and, I recall, thrown out of the Evangelical Alliance

Fact is that the cross remains a hinge-point of human history and a turning point of sacred mystery. It calls more for worship than black and white theological insistence. If this gospel was to be grasped by uneducated Galilean fishermen and passed on then it can't be the case that the finer points of Christian doctrine are of any importance. It must be a huge, general question with a huge general answer. Say yes to God. Whatever that means.

So, after almost a year of wondering if I dared write this final sentence. It is this. No.

But I also think the question is inadequately posed to allow for a yes/no answer. Thus the essay, so you could tell, I hope, which bit I was saying 'No' to.


James said...

With respect I think they've framed the question the wrong way.

If you frame it in terms not of me, but of the covenants made by God (that there is such a thing as right and wrong, and that there have to be consequences to doing wrong for right and wrong to be meaningful), then I have no issue with substitutionary atonement. I can distinguish a difference between wrath and anger: God's wrath ultimately is justifiable, human anger is not.

But I'm also with you on the last question: God is God, and who are we to tell him how to run his business?

Caroline Too said...

I was struck recently, as I read Romans, by the way that when Paul wrote about the cross and Jesus dying, he always linked it to the resurrection. Now, I'm no biblical scholar, but it seemed to me that a possible point from this is that it wasn't the death alone that did the at-one-ing but the death and resurrection.... that sin leads to death and it is only as death is defeated that we are one with God.

I was struck, more recently, by the difference between Hebrews and Romans... I have decided, with almost no evidence to back me up! :-) that Hebrews was written by Apollos before he met Priscilla and Aquila...

oh crikey... there are some readers of st's blog who know what they're talking about here...:-O I'll go and get some tea